In Football or in Life


Joseph B. Wirthlin

In Football or in Life

We hear a lot these days about influential teachers. They are the ones who inspire and motivate their students in life’s uncertain struggle. To be elected as one having influenced another for good is among life’s foremost achievements and privileges and was so designated by our Heavenly Father in a revelation to the Prophet Joseph Smith. The words are familiar to all of us but are so meaningful and eloquent that we should ponder them often:

“And if it so be that you should labor all your days … and bring, save it be one soul unto me, how great shall be your joy.” (D&C 18:15.)

We are influenced by others in several important ways. That which is taught to us verbally can have a great impact, but there is almost infinite power in example. The Savior emphasized that the force of example and personal involvement is a most powerful form of communication in influencing others. In Matthew it is recorded that the Savior said, “Ye shall know them by their fruits.” (Matt. 7:16.)

In effect Jesus, the greatest of all teachers, was saying that what we need in the world today are good examples to show the way. A good example is nonverbal communication at its best. Example communicates ideals, morality, love, sincerity, dedication, courage, enthusiasm, motivation. It can also communicate their opposites. In short, example demonstrates the what and how of what we believe.

A Chinese proverb depicts the impact of the various elements in the teaching process in these words: “Tell me, I’ll forget; show me, I may remember; but involve me, and I will understand.”

All of these fundamentals—telling, showing, and involving—were dynamically present in the life and work of a truly great University of Utah football coach of a generation ago. He was the unforgettable Ike Armstrong, for at least 25 years the unexcelled mentor of the Utah Redskins. As a youth I found the utmost exhilaration in playing football at the university under Coach Armstrong. I found an outlet for my love of athletics. To him football not only provided a vehicle for the development of skills, ideals, and leadership, it personified life—and life at its best. To him the game afforded an unrivaled opportunity to teach not only football prowess, but also courage, duty, dependability, perseverance, integrity, and enthusiasm, which resulted in physical, emotional, and even spiritual conditioning at the highest level. Coach Armstrong was a fierce competitor and loved to win, but even more he loved to see his players become responsible, honorable, and goal-oriented young men, faithful to the loftiest ideals. The end product was to be nothing less than character of the most solid kind.

Beyond these ideals Coach Armstrong taught basic, fundamental, hard football. He emphasized the fact that if each play were perfectly executed, it would result in a touchdown. But achieving that perfect play, he stressed, was only possible if each player performed his responsibility and assignment perfectly. This meant that each lineman and backfield man would have to do a perfect job of blocking out his opponent, that the center would have to pass the ball to the quarterback with bull’s-eye accuracy and timing, and that the ball carrier would have to execute the play as called.

I can assure you that it didn’t always work this way, anymore than life itself can be directed or lived without some trial and error. However, if ultimate success is to be achieved in either football or life, there can be no compromising of the ideals or the effort. And, as in all things, it is frequently necessary to pick up the pieces, reevaluate the resources and the goals, never tiring of making the second effort.

I recall a glorious November Indian summer afternoon at the Ute stadium in 1937. Our opponent was the University of Colorado. The star of that team was Byron “Whizzer” White, a versatile, fast, powerful, and innovative quarterback. He has since been a Rhodes Scholar and is presently Associate Justice on the bench of our country’s Supreme Court. Utah kicked off to Colorado. Whizzer plucked the ball out of the air five yards behind the goal line and with enormous speed side-stepped every one of Utah’s 11 players, each one of whom touched him as he sped past. He ran the entire length of the field, plus five yards, to a roaring touchdown. It was a heart-stopping, hair-raising performance, the longest, most spectacular run of the year in our conference.

At our post-game evaluation session, Ike demonstrated how it might have been possible for any one of the Utes to stop Whizzer, if he had played up to his potential. I recount this unforgettable experience to emphasize that success in life depends upon the development of qualities that are often neglected. A let-down in morale and high purpose is usually a forerunner of failure.

Working with young people is one of my responsibilities in the Church, and I am most anxious to share my experiences and testimony with them. In my travels I have discovered that the youth of today have sophisticated learning opportunities and advantages that were unavailable only a few years ago. I have further observed that those who steadfastly adhere to the principles and ideals of the gospel are the finest ever. But this I also know—there are far too many who are compromising their standards and rationalizing their ideals to conform to the world, a world where immorality, dishonesty, contempt for the law, and love for the indulgent life seem to prevail.

My experiences in Church, business, and football all prove unmistakably that our disposition and capacity to discipline ourselves is the root of all virtues and the source of all freedom. To be morally free, man must master his own appetites and instincts and, in the words of the scripture, “rule over his own spirit.” (Prov. 25:28.) It has been proved without exception that character cannot be built, nor anything of value accomplished, without self-discipline. As the football player to be successful blocks out his opponent, so must we block out Satan in our daily lives if we are to reach our goal. Dr. A. J. Cronin, distinguished author, once wrote: “It is self-conquest which demonstrates manhood. The disciplined man has acquired a strength, which comes from inner mastery. He has chosen between the two freedoms; the false, where one is free to do as he likes; and the true, where he is free to do what he ought.” (“Unless You Deny Yourself,” Reader’s Digest, Jan. 1956, p. 54.)

Too much false freedom abounds today, spawning a permissive way of life that, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a Russian refugee, said in his Harvard commencement address of July 8, 1978, portrays “moral cowardice,” “materialism,” “a decline in courage,” indicating “that the forces of evil have begun their decisive offensive. All,” he declared, “contribute to making the western way of life less and less a model for the world.”

Nearly a half a century ago, Leo J. Muir, a staunch Latter-day Saint, wrote a book entitled “Flashes from the Eternal Semaphore.” President Heber J. Grant sent a copy to all missionaries over his signature, writing: “It will be an inspiration to you while on your mission (and, of course, our mission never ends) to read this inspired book.”

Brother Muir, in dedicating the book, wrote:

To the Youth of America

The light of seventy centuries illumines your pathway.
Yet across that pathway fall shadows that beguile and deceive—
Mystic shadows of pleasure-lust,
Dim shadows of ignorance,
Lurid shadows of sin.
In the firm faith that these Flashes from the Eternal Semaphore will dispel some of those shadows, this volume is dedicated to you.

It is in this spirit that I write the humble words of this message, at the same time reminding you again and again of the aphorism, “As he thinketh in his heart, so is he.” (Prov. 23:7.) I recommend that you choose models, exemplary, towering individuals of ideals, moral character, achievement, virtue, and goodness, after whom to pattern your lives.

Joshua Liebman, author of “Peace of Mind,” said: “Matter the most important thing in the world? No! Ideals! Companionship of inspiring heroes, martyrs, saints, teachers, leaders! These are the indispensables for human achievement. Man cannot live without the support of other human personalities—wise, good, friendly and compassionate.” (“Peace of Mind,” Simon and Schuster: New York, 1946, p. 192.) Nor, let me add, without the support of God and his word!

In a sermon years ago entitled “Parents, Establish a Library of the Lord,” my father quoted President Brigham Young as follows:

“On reading carefully the Old and the New Testaments we can discover that the majority of the revelations given to mankind anciently were in regard to their daily duties; we follow in the same path. The revelations contained in the Bible and the Book of Mormon are examples to us, and the book of Doctrine and Covenants contains direct revelation to this Church; they are a guide to us, and we do not wish to do them away; we do not want them to become obsolete and to set them aside. We wish to continue in the revelations of the Lord Jesus Christ day by day, and to have his Spirit with us continually. If we can do this, we shall no more walk in darkness.” (Discourses of Brigham Young, 1943 ed., p. 12.)

My testimony is that regardless of the nature of our challenge, whether it be in the Church, in athletics, in school, or in our daily work, living the commandments of our Heavenly Father, dedication, and perseverance will result in success in every endeavor in this life and eternal life in the celestial kingdom.

[illustration] Illustrated by Ralph Reynolds